AN INTERVIEW WITH ALPINE HELICOPTERS OF CANMORE
Viewing the jagged peaks and white powder of the Rocky Mountains from the skies has got to be one of the greatest experiences a visitor can have. What can you expect from a trip up in a helicopter over the mountains?
I visited with Jo-Anne to find out a little more about heli-sightseeing in the Rockies and found out what makes this type of experience so special to people from around the world.
WHAT CAN I EXPECT??
Marcel: Heli-sightseeing is one of the once in a lifetime activities to experience here in the Rockies. What makes this experience so special?
Jo-Anne: Well, I think it’s the different perspective of the mountains that you normally don’t get to experience. I live here in town and I see the mountains every day, but the aspect from which you see the mountains from the helicopter is unique. The up-close and personal view you have while flying is different from the vantage point you have from the ground or from your vehicle as you drive through the area. For me it's the altitude that gives you a broader view of the whole area, and then it just becomes so much larger than you ever thought.
Marcel: So then you really feel the grandness of the mountains.
Jo-Anne: You kind of feel lost in your environment and feel like you're in a National Geographic movie or some kind of documentary and it doesn't seem real. The comment we often get is that it didn't seem real and that the mountains were so much larger than they had imagined they would be.
Marcel: What surprises people the most when they go up in a helicopter?
Jo-Anne: Some people are often initially afraid of flying in a helicopter when they compare it to flying in a large fixed wing aircraft that people normally associate flight with. They are always amazed at how close they feel to the mountains during the flight.
It really is a different experience from riding in a fixed wing aircraft. I suffer from severe vertigo but I'm not afraid of heights. For whatever reason, I have no clue why, but the style of flight doesn't bother me at all. The smoothness actually makes me feel safer. The pilot has much more control over this type of small aircraft compared to a jet.
Marcel: What has been the most unforgettable experience you’ve given a client?
Jo-Anne: It would definitely be a heli-wedding we did the summer before last. They were a very young couple and this was something they really wanted to do. The groom was terminally ill and they were going to carry through with it no matter what. It was featured in a cancer magazine afterwards and it was just unbelievable. They got the experience of a lifetime and he passed three days later. It was unreal.
Where do the majority of your clients come
Jo-Anne: The majority of our international visitors are from Australia or Great Britain. We get quite a few Americans and a lot of Canadians but about 60% of our tour business from May to October is Aussie or from the UK. 80% of our business is done from May through October and the other 20% the rest of the year. In the winter months it tends to be a lot of Americans and Canadians - many of them are skiers.
Marcel: Is there anything your clients should know/do prior to the trip?
Jo-Anne: Just bring a sense of adventure and relax. Try not to be nervous and enjoy the flight. We also suggest that clients not try to use their camcorder for the whole flight. Often people are disappointed because they spent most of their time trying to film or photograph the trip and they miss the experience. They then comment, “I guess I'll see it when I play my video back.”, but then they have really missed the true experience.
Marcel: Does the pilot give commentary during the flight?
Jo-Anne: Yes, Alpine Helicopters gives live commentary. We've chosen not to use a pre-recorded commentary since the tours are not always going in the same direction or to the same location due to weather conditions. We don't want our clients to be hearing that there is a certain mountain off to the right when they may not even be in that location at that time. The pilots are very knowledgeable about the areas they fly in and each one of them has their own style. We have some that are multilingual, so we always try to pair them up with the appropriate groups.
Marcel: Is there a special souvenir guests can take home with them after this adventure?
Jo-Anne: Alpine Helicopters has produced a DVD of the flights which can be purchased for $9.95. It gives a good overview of an entire tour: getting into the helicopter, buckling in, putting the headset on as well as portions of different parts of a typical tour. There is a second portion on the DVD from Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) and it profiles their Heli-ski operation.
I watched the DVD the other day. It truly brought back some of those original feelings I had when I came to the mountains back in 1979. I was really awe-inspired by the Canadian Rockies. I really enjoyed the perspective this video captured from the helicopter and it reminded me when I first worked for Canadian Mountain Holidays. I had a chance to fly numerous times with Alpine helicopters and it really is a different perspective of the mountains. You really get a feeling of the grandeur of the mountains.
After having watched the video, I think I would truly tell any prospective client of yours to leave the camcorder alone, enjoy the flight and then just purchase the DVD that they can show their friends when they get back home. The filming I found to be truly high-quality and unless they are a professional filmmaker I don't think their camcorder or camera will capture what's been captured on this DVD.
HEALTH & SAFETY
Marcel: Are there any health restrictions that might prohibit people from riding in a helicopter?
Jo-Anne: No, not to my knowledge. We do have disability assistance. We have had people that have been completely incapacitated and have taken them in and out of the machine. We have had people in wheelchairs and we've had people with walkers and canes. We assist them to the machines and upon their return, we meet up with them again at the helicopter with their walker, cane or wheelchair. So there are no physical disabilities that I can think of that have stopped people from doing a heli-tour. We have had some people with hearing aids that have chosen to take their hearing aids out because of the headset. So some people choose to opt out of the conversation that may take place from the head sets and miss the commentary, as it may be distorted by their hearing aids.
Marcel: Safety is always a concern. What measures does Alpine Helicopters take to ensure such a great safety record?
Jo-Anne: The company itself has a fleet of 40 machines so we are also the Bell Helicopter service center for machines from across North America out of our Kelowna base. The knowledge of our engineers is in my opinion some of the best. We have 10 full time technicians here on site. We also have a full-time maintenance facility here on site. The hangar is large enough that we can pull in three helicopters at any given time. We have 10 helicopters here at this facility so they rotate through daily for mechanical checks. They are also checked every morning by each individual pilot so the maintenance is pretty scrutinized. Alpine Helicopters is certified under the Helicopter Association International Platinum program of safety. We were only the second company of a membership of approximately 750 members to receive this certification and now 42 members have received this award.
HELI-ADVENTURES IN THE CANADIAN ROCKIES
Marcel: In addition to heli-tours, Alpine Helicopters offers many other heli-adventures. Tell us a little about heli-activities our readers can look forward to here in the Canadian Rockies.
Jo-Anne: We have done group transfers out to Boundary Ranch for a Western experience with barbecue and then the passengers are coached back by bus to Banff. We've also done the reverse where clients have been coached out to the barbecue at Boundary Ranch and then flown back to Canmore and then coached to Banff.
Heli-hiking in the mountains is also a popular sport and we work with White Mountain Adventures, a local provider, here in the Rockies. All of their guides are certified ACMG guides and together we offer a great mountain adventure. In the winter we offer drop-offs for Snowy Owl dogsled tours up in the Spray Valley, or we do a pickup service and fly clients back to Canmore.
Other activities popular here in the Rockies include river rafting and quading or RV touring. We also do drop off service for Canmore Quads, which is over in the Ghost Lake region. So you can get dropped off there or you can get picked up on the river after a rafting experience with the Canadian Rafting Centre, which is located here in Canmore. They also offer many other activities. We've also done a triple combo where we fly the client in for the rafting, transfer them over to the Quad tours, and finally pick them up and fly back to town.
Weddings here in the Canadian Rockies are always something special and we do approximately 20 a year. The commissioner we use for the weddings is a former Park Warden who is retired, so not only does he hold the permit for the area we go into, but he is also the Commissioner. Most parties are groups under 12 and since a helicopter seats six, there are two flights to the site where the weddings are held. It is about a 10 minute flight to an absolutely beautiful site. If you were to go in on foot, it would be about a 10-hour hike in. Only the commissioner and White Mountain Adventures have permits to fly in and land by helicopter at the Mount Charles Stewart site. It is an 8 to 10-hour hike up the dry creek bed of Cougar Creek.
Marcel: Does Alpine Helicopters provide flights into Mount Assiniboine Lodge and other areas?
Jo-Anne: We do transfers for Mount Assiniboine Lodge & Naiset Huts also Talus Lodge.
Mount Assiniboine Lodge is currently closed and under reconstruction, but they do have some huts called Naiset huts. These are very basic accomodations which have a little heating stove in them and platform beds. These are open into the fall. Every year we do a number of transfers of passengers who would like to experience this place. Sometimes we just do a luggage transfer when the clients choose to do the six-hour hike in and have their supplies flown in.
Talus Lodge is another back country lodge that we fly into. It is situated southwest of Canmore in the BC Rockies near the Alberta border near Banff and the British Columbia/Alberta divide.
BEHIND THE SCENES AT ALPINE HELICOPTERS
Marcel: What are the types of machines that Alpine Helicopters uses in its operations?
Jo-Anne: The fleet itself is made up of 212s, 407, the Long Ranger which is a 206L and the 206B, which is the smaller machine. We only have two jet rangers left in the fleet which have four seats plus the pilot’s. For our tours we use the Bell Long Ranger (206L).
Marcel: How do you seat clients in the helicopter ensuring good views for everyone?
Jo-Anne: Although the helicopter has six seats, we only put five guests in as we don't use the center back seat. There is one seat up front with the pilot and four in the rear cabin - two front facing and two rear facing. By doing it this way, everybody has a window seat and it is much better for weight restrictions.
Marcel: What are some of the safety precautions that are taken with regard to weight by Alpine Helicopters?
Jo-Anne: Each day the pilot calculates how much weight the machine can carry based on his own weight, the fuel he has a board and the temperature outside. For instance, we had an occasion when the pilot had a calculation of 1000 pounds permitted, and we had a group of five passengers that exceeded 1000 pounds. We split up the group into two flights as we do take the safety precautions seriously.
The 407s are primarily used for our search and rescue and our commercial work with the warden's office in Banff and Kananaskis. We do probably 200 rescues a year ranging from lost skiers at ski hills to lost hikers to motor vehicle accidents.
The 212s are mainly used for Heli skiing, forestry and fires. Of the fleet is approximately 18 to 22 that are 212s, which are used for the winter operation of Heli skiing.
So in the summer, of a fleet of 40 we have 10 here in Canmore, a couple in Calgary, a couple in Golden, British Columbia and the rest of our machines are at our home base in Kelowna, British Columbia.
Marcel: How many employees work at Alpine Helicopters?
Jo-Anne: Here at the Alpine Helicopters Canmore operation we have approximately 40 employees and at our head office in Kelowna we have approximately 100 employees. We have a full service center for Bell in Kelowna which is under the name of Alpine Aerotech Ltd. and service Bell helicopters from across North America. The Alpine division, which is flying forestry, fire, mining, pipeline and power line work is also out of Kelowna. The Canmore base is the only one that offers sightseeing, the Golden base offers lodge support in the Revelstoke area and the Calgary base does primarily power work with utilities and pipelines.
Marcel: Tell me about the pilots you hire.
Jo-Anne: Alpine Helicopters' pilots are from all over the world. Some are international who have come to Canada and become Canadian citizens or landed immigrants and are working towards their permanent residency. We do not take pilots that are on travel visas as we put a lot of money into our training and we include the training when we hire the pilots. The machines cost approximately $2000 an hour to operate; a lot of the young new pilots want to get on with us because we include the cost of our training, whereas other helicopter operations charge for the training. That is a main reason we are such a respected employer and why many of the young pilots want to get on with us here.
Marcel: What is a potential pilot’s timeline with Alpine Helicopters?
Jo-Anne: The idea is that they spend a couple years on the ground after they finish their pilot school and maintain their license in those two years. They work around here in a multitude of areas; fuelling the machines, cleaning machines, greeting the guests, and helping out the operation. They then work their way into flying tours and after a couple of years, they usually have a two-year contract on tours and then they are expected to go out and find a job elsewhere to gain more experience. We have taken some of the pilots back to our commercial fleet.
At the moment we have five pilots that are certified at the search and rescue level, two commercial pilots that fly commercial work for us and four tour pilots.
Marcel: Could you share with us a brief history of Alpine Helicopters?
Jo-Anne: This current location was originally opened as Canmore Helicopters in 1988 by two brothers by the name of Lance & Rocky Cooper, who eventually sold to Alpine helicopters in 1994. Rocky works for Alpine out of Kelowna and Lance, who works here in Canmore, is one of the certified search and rescue pilots. Alpine Helicopters has been in operation since 1961, so we have 50 years experience in the helicopter industry.
MY FIRST HELI EXPERIENCE
I remember the anticipation I felt the first time I went up in a helicopter. It gave me a unique perspective of the mountains I call home. Heli-skiing - leaves you with a sense of amazement at what Mother Nature has created. Nature pure. Silence. Beauty. The desire to go up again never leaves you. For more about my first heli experience with Alpine Helicopters and Canadian Mountain Holidays - just click...